Denialism – the denial of a scientific theory by and large regarded as proven and valid by the scientific community – is a phenomenon that I first came across with during the Finnish Science Forum of 2009, where I worked as a communications intern. The theme of that years Forum was evolution, since it was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charler Darwin and the 150th anniversary of his book ‘Origin of Species’. On the first day of the Science Forum the biggest newspaper of Finland, the Helsingin Sanomat (HS), mentioned the Forum on it’s calendar of events. After all, the biannual Science Forum is the country’s biggest scientific event aimed at general public, with approximately 15000 visitors during five days. Alongside this major event there was another event the HS had deemed worthy of mentioning that day: a meeting on creationism organised by a local pentecostalist church. The comparison felt strange to me at the time, but as I later found out this of course is the logic of journalism: every story has to have at least two sides, no matter if the other side is supported by a global community of professionals and the other by a handful of fundamentalists.
I had more run-ins with evolution deniers during the Forum. There was a man in a gorilla suit who followed sessions religously (pun intended) throughout the days, even though the suit must have been hot and it also made it impossible for him to speak. Then there were the two girls that made comments at every session they followed, about how science has been unable to answer how the first living cell developed and how an unnamed prominent professor had told them that the creator was the source of life on Earth. These girls were on a mission to undermine the authority of scientists by using the authority of a scientist. Go figure.
The denialist presence at the Science Forum of 2009 was not very strong or visible. For the sake of drama I could write here, that it was just early days, and since then the movement has grown stronger in Finland. Fortunately that is not true. The evolution deniers don’t have a fertile ground to grow on in Finland because of the secularity of Finnish culture. There is one religious TV channel that sometimes broadcasts discussions about evolution and creationism, but they have a limited budget and the style of the shows is dry and amateurish, to put it mildly. There is absolutely no debate about whether creationism should be tought in schools alongside evolution. An MP recently made an inquiry about the topic to the Minister of Education. The Minister gave the MP an oral answer in a session of the Parliament, as is customary, by stating that there is no reason to introduce creationism to schools, and that was that. The exchange was hardly noticed in the media.
Unfortunately the practical non-existence of evolution denial in Finland does not mean that we are immune to denialist arguments. During the recent swine flu epidemia the Finnish officials introduced a national vaccination campaign using the Pandemrix vaccine. As a result of those vaccinations tens of children were affected with narcolepsy. The connection between the vaccine and the cases of narcolepsy was proven and also the National Institute for Health and Welfare admitted that the vaccination had carried a risk. This created a lot of controversy and gathered wide media attention. A few publications and groups have taken advantage of the atmosphere of mistrust and continue to publish stories unrelated to Pandemrix questioning the safety of vaccines (examples in Finnish: Iltalehti, Magneettimedia, Rokotusinfo and Suomen terveysjärjestö).
In my experience the different ”camps” of denialists – the evolution deniers, the anti-vaccine movement, the climate change deniers, the holocaust deniers, etc. – are a scattered lot, that each have their own agendas and motivations. The media should be wary of empowering denialists by presenting their views on the same level as the science they are denying, just for the sake of false impartiality. This does not mean that denialist views should not be reported, but they should be shown as what they are: marginal, misguided and just plain wrong.